How much is the self worth?

Head in the Cloud

Photo of Bianca Lee

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My Facebook profile dates all the way back to 2008. Scrolling through years of my timeline unburies a trove of embarrassing photo dumps, “like my status” posts with people I no longer talk to and comment threads sparring with middle school classmates I’ve long since forgotten about.

Maybe it’s karma getting back at me for lying about being 13 when I made my profile, but every so often, current friends dig through my old posts for entertainment during study breaks, uncovering meme-y photos of me from the depths of Facebook.

I need a Facebook profile cleanse, I tell myself every time. Yet nostalgia holds me back from sterilizing my profile down to a blank slate. As embarrassing as they are, I find the glimpses of my past selves on my timeline endearing. And so, the unflattering-photo-duels and publicly entertained conversations about inside jokes remain on my timeline for an indefinitely increasing audience to see.

This hypervisibility of my online self concerns me again when I realize that that same meme-y version of myself is also visible to my internship managers. Even the middle school version of me that posted hourly updates while reading The Hunger Games can be browsed by my English teachers, future boyfriends, middle school enemies and anyone who has any reason to care. The more of my experiences that my online presence accumulates, the more I expose myself and solidify the virtual simulacrum of my real-life self. 

Social media platforms are engineered to profit from our sense of identity — they center their sites around the creation of a personal profile rather than engagement with other users. In an idealistic declaration of the future of work, Andreessen Horowitz identifies this potential to “monetize individuality” as the “passion economy.” Like goods and labor, the self has become a commodity. Our opinions, appearances and interests aren’t just forms of self-expression anymore –– they’re business.

And this profit model works. I’m reminded of my middle school days when my favorite form of entertainment was watching daily vlogs filmed by professional life-livers. I tuned into their monotonous lifestyles; I was swept up into their YouTube empires, diving deep into their profiles. Even though every video I watched seemed to be almost identical, I’d still press the play button on another. Their nonunique video formats were simply a backdrop to their onscreen caricatures, which were the real stars of the videos.

At first glance, the “passion economy” seems innocuous and the constant consumption of selfhood is offhandedly swept under the rug. After all, Hollywood rakes in billions of dollars simply by propping actors up on pedestals too, right? But the difference is that in Hollywood, the spotlight turns off at the end of the day; the TV episode shoot ends eventually; the actors take off their masks once they recede backstage. At least for them it’s possible to divorce the “onstage” self from the “offstage” one.

But online, so long as I’m scrolling, tapping, commenting and watching, the beam of the digital spotlight never turns off. My Facebook profile stays up for everyone to perceive and the permanence of my digital footprint has a larger impact than a few laughs during a study break. 

There comes a point where the personality I project on the internet in turn affects me. As I interact online, my personal identity is fed into algorithms that will later populate my potential preferences and filter in my favorites. What I end up seeing on my feed determines what rabbit holes I’ll potentially go down, and my device turns into a self-surveilling mirror of who I am and what I’m interested in. In the online marketplace of selfhood, my own perception of myself is manipulated, and I find that the more of myself that I give to the internet, the more malleable I become. 

The creator economy works because it banks on the assumption that we’ll attach our online profiles to our concept of self-expression. It wants us to pride ourselves on our identities, which tech companies see as gold mines of untapped value. And I fall for it. In our online bazaar of selfhood and attention, what I bring to the market is my Frankenstein-like quilt of memories that I stitched up for my profiles. What I consume from the market are the countless subscriptions and accounts that I follow.

As cringey as my Facebook profile is, tech companies don’t want me to delete it and, for nostalgia’s sake, I don’t either. 

In fact, I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t want to pretend that I’m able to prevent myself from being commodified when I know very well that I’ll probably want to tweet something later today. I just want to believe that while we’ve given parts of ourselves to the creator economy, we still have the agency to prevent ourselves from completely losing sight of ourselves. And maybe the fact that my Facebook profile isn’t fully representative of who I am in real life indicates that we’re still far from fully harvesting away at our identities, which seemed to be the last thing that we hadn’t put a price tag on.

Bianca Lee writes the Thursday column on the intersection of technology and society.